Feature: Pina Bausch

Tuesday 5 January 2010

'Palermo Palermo' Pina Bausch returned to Sadler’s Wells from 10 – 20 February 2005 with two productions: Nelken and Palermo Palermo.

Pina Bausch picture Pina Bausch came to Sadler’s Wells for just 4 performances of Masurca Fogo early in 2002.
The short season was a complete sell out.
Carole Kew looks at some of the reasons why….

‘Pina! Pina! ‘ On the Tanztheater Wuppertal’s last visit to Sadler’s Wells in 1999, this chant erupted at the end of _’Viktor’_until the choreographer slipped on stage, a still figure in black. The audience went wild.

Pina Bausch inspires devotion. Why?

Perhaps because she and her 30-year old company present real life – people audiences can identify with. Dancers love, play, get hurt. They eat, drink, smoke. And any action becomes dance.
Pina Bausch: 'Masurca Fogo'

Perhaps it’s the sheer spectacle that attracts. Everything about a Bausch piece is big. Big subjects (love and conflict in relationships). Big company (20+ dancers). Big sets (based on nature with leaves, water, or earth). And her works are complex. Mixed media (film in ‘Masurca Fogo’). Many scenes (of montaged dance fragments and snatches of text). And a collaged soundtrack (both folk and classical). Yet Bausch creates order from this potential chaos through her precisely formed choreography. Each scene is carefully constructed from simple actions, all meshed together to create a unique Bausch rhythm – from fast to slow, from solo to group, from text to dance, from setting up the stage as illusion to shattering it by talking to the audience.
Kurt Jooss Tanztheater (dance theatre) didn’t start with Bausch but with her teacher Kurt Jooss. His vision in 1920’s Germany was for a dance that explored social issues facing people in his own time. Most famous for his 1932 anti-war dance Green Table – created the year before Hitler came to power – Jooss fled Nazi Germany for England in 1934, returning after the war to re-establish the Folkwang School in Essen where Bausch studied.
What Bausch shares with Jooss is a love for humanity and a desire for dance to be relevant to people’s lives today. Famously she once said that what interests her is not how people move but what moves people. She reveals their inner life – what drives them. Physical drives: for sex, food. Emotional drives: for love, connection. Her dancers are survivors – strong individuals trailing weaknesses. Bausch creates her pieces with her dancers. Using roundabout questions or simple tasks, she stimulates improvisation by triggering her dancers’ memories and imagination. Through acute observation, selection and timing, she weaves the disjointed fragments into joined-up dance.

Kurt Jooss studied with Rudolf Laban, the founder of German expressive dance, who freed his students from music and the set steps of ballet. Improvising barefoot outdoors they explored movement in space. Bausch shares this intimate relationship with nature. Animals pop up frequently in her work. In Viktor a lone sheep makes a solitary appearance, triggering random thoughts in me. Countryside – city-life alienation – environmental concerns. Perhaps this free association is how a Bausch piece works. One image, one scene, one dancer’s movement hooks into one person’s memory and experience, triggering a ‘yes’ of recognition.

Jooss combined the intensity of expressive dance with the discipline of ballet to arrive at a clarity of form with his spare, gestural dance language. Through this, he searched for something deeper, beyond the everyday. Something that touched – or moved – audiences to contemplate the big questions facing people in life.

Echoes of this sound in Bausch’s distinctive form. The actions she finally stages – a woman stuffing steak into a shoe, a man crawling along dressed like a baby – are deceptively simple which makes copying her work look easy. But it’s not. Beneath her dancers’ surface movements lies complexity and depth, an effect she achieves by skewing the everyday. In Bausch’s world, everyday actions – such as wheeling a supermarket trolley – are made unfamiliar. Small movements are amplified; large actions stripped down. And their timing is altered, or repeated. So although she deals with simple images and fleeting moments – apparent trivia – her work is far from trivial. For by making strange the everyday, she foregrounds emotions held in common, so that viewers feel touched – or moved.
Perhaps that’s what makes her special. By hooking into the big questions of human life – love, anguish, struggle, loss – with a compassionate optimism, Bausch and her dancers appear to identify with audiences and share the same big questions.

Viktor was created as a Rome co-production in 1986. This pattern has continued with the company spending several weeks on location, immersing themselves in a particular culture – for Masurca Fogo a 1998 visit to Portugal and the Cape Verde Islands off the African coast. Bausch captures the spirit of a place at a particular moment. And the resulting piece isn’t a single production toured internationally but a version adapted to a particular culture – French jokes when in France.

In the end it doesn’t matter what Masurca Fogo is ‘about’. It will flood your senses with images. It will seduce and maybe shock. And somewhere beneath the surface will lie those deep questions about life.
An article by Carole Kew on Pina Bausch appeared in the Winter 2001/2 issue of Dance Theatre Journal

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